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American Indian deeds on the Southern Essex Registry of Deeds Web site.

SALEM — A new Web site has captured a bittersweet moment in the history of Essex County.

More than 300 years ago, American Indian tribes signed away the rights to their lands, one by one. By then, says Tom O’Leary, a local historian, the tribes had been nearly annihilated by their first encounters with European diseases — “Ninety percent died,” he says. And that was before the Pilgrims and Puritans had even arrived.

Those Algonquins who survived eventually began to blend into the new, dominant culture, wearing European clothes, learning English ways and the English language. “After 1650 they were very Anglicized,” O’Leary says. “They were getting away from their cultural roots. It’s one of the prices they paid to survive.”

Signing away their land was an Anglicized process as well. Everything was recorded on parchment. Consequently, when the Registry of Deeds began updating its documents about five years ago, they were startled to find a succession of long-forgotten deeds, decorated with little bows and arrows, all of them transfers of tribal land to Puritan hands.

In all, 25 original deeds, some featuring the marks of the illiterate tribal chiefs who signed them, were recovered. In Ipswich, for example, Masconomet signed.

“These ancient documents link us with our 17th century roots,” said John O’Brien, register of the Southern Essex Registry of Deeds. “And they tell the fascinating tale of how the few remaining Native Americans of Essex County, decimated by disease, were supplanted by the Puritans.”

Starting today, that story will be available to anyone at www.nativeamericandeeds.com.

Ironically, the original decision to have the deeds signed had little to do with fair play, O’Leary indicates. Rather, it was a reaction to the king’s ruling revoking the charter that had given Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers the right to the land they lived on. “These quick claim deeds were taken to London to prove the lands were purchased and were not part of the charter,” he explains.

The deeds also established the fact of a growing, successful colony — and the disappearance of an entire culture.

The innovator of the new Web site, O’Leary uses it to tell this story and others, including the tragic efforts of some American Indians to hang onto their land. It includes maps, paintings and links to sites like the Peabody Essex Museum. O’Leary also hopes to work with local schools to acquaint young people with the site.

It’s an often gripping narrative, O’Leary promises. “You won’t want to put it down. It reads like a good novel.”

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